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Opening up the debate

Duncan Bowie on trying to participate in Labour's policy review

Labour in opposition tends to conduct policy reviews. Older readers will remember the policy review conducted by Neil Kinnock after the 1979 defeat. The current policy review is a somewhat more subdued affair. The review being led on Ed Miliband's behalf by Liam Byrne sees the first task as ‘to get back in touch with the people we came into politics and public life to serve'. Byrne does not specify who these people are – the implication is that it is everybody. So the first six months of the review – not apparently started till some six months after the election defeat, was spent holding 80 events with a total of 6,000 members of the public – not really that impressive; an average of 75 persons a meeting! Byrne repeats the familiar story – no recognition that the Labour government made mistakes – it was all a failure of presentation. ‘We have to face the truth that while we are proud of what we did in government we looked out of touch on too many issues.'

Labour has established some 19 ‘expert working groups' led by shadow cabinet members. However the only document produced so far – this is not a speedy process – is a report presented to the National Policy Forum on 25 June headed ‘A better future for Britain'. Apparently circulated to policy forum members a few days before the meeting, it was not open to amendment. The document itself is curious as it does not set out any policy positions. There are four themes: Getting the deficit down and rebuilding our economy to help the squeezed middle; keeping the Promise of Britain to the Next Generation; Renewing Responsibility, Strengthening Our Communities; and Our Place in the World. There is no overall statement of party policy objectives or principles. Instead, the review seems to be starting with a blank slate and identifying issues raised by the general public at meetings and then using this as a basis for possible directions of travel. Each section starts off with a defence of the record of the last Government, which is followed by a selection of ‘vox pop' quotes under the heading ‘What we have heard', then a critique of the Coalition government and finally a section headed ‘ Labour is facing up to the challenges of the future.'

To take an example, the Renewing Responsibility section identifies ‘concern about immigration' using quotes from Maria in Accrington, Michael in Lowestoft, Anouska in Derby, Catherine in Warrington, and Beryl in Eastleigh (clearly even if these are real people, they don't have second names), then there is an attack on ‘the Tory-led Government's policies on immigration' as ‘ in chaos' (so the New Labour government's immigration policies were all sorted were they?), with the conclusion being: ‘We are committed to an immigration system that promotes and protects British values. People need to know that immigration is controlled, that the rules are firm and fair, and that there is support for communities in dealing with change'. Not sure which British values are being referred to here – those demonstrated by greedy bankers, by opportunistic looting rioters or by MPs fiddling their expenses.

The first theme is significant and reflects the few speeches that Ed Miliband has actually made since he became leader – it's all about winning the votes of the squeezed middle. This explains why in a speech he can attack bankers and benefit scroungers (now rioters) as amoral equivalents – it is the squeezed middle, victims of the recession, no longer able to pay mortgages out of their salaries, or their childrens' universities fees (whose idea was introducing fees for higher education?) overtaxed and under-recognised, who are the new source of potential votes. Supporting lower income households is just too expensive – we couldn't possibly raise taxes on the rich or on the squeezed middle – and anyway it's their fault if they are unemployed. So the housing section of the paper says absolutely nothing about the need for social housing for lower income households – even though the Coalition government is actually in the process of abolishing it, and instead repeats the old mantra of helping more people to be home owners.

Nothing's really changed here. No lessons learnt! Turning to the ‘Our Place in the World' section, we find ‘strong support for the role played by our armed forces',

‘continuing concern about the lives lost in Iraq and Afghanistan' but no recognition that invading other countries may not be a good thing and may actually lead not just to British soldiers being killed but possibly other people as well. The only slight tinge of concern is quoting Ian from Livingston as saying ‘Stop interfering in other countries'. Good on you Ian!

In the section on how Labour is facing up to the international challenge, in the reference to bilateral and international partnerships, ‘our historic alliance with America' actually comes before membership of the EU, and the Commonwealth, with membership of the UN security council last - note the membership is of the Security Council not the UN as a whole. We are in with the big boys! ‘Britain has a unique place in international relations'. No recognition of a possible conflict between bilateral and international relationships! There is then a resumé of current international crises such as the Arab spring. Apparently we have influence in Bahrain and Yemen, where we can support dissidents, while in Syria and Iran where we have no influence, we condemn repression. The principled position here is unclear. In Libya, we oppose the regime's extreme violence - but the extreme violence perpetrated by our own armed forces bombing Libya is justified because our intervention is ‘implemented with professionalism and bravery'.

It's not clear what the role of Labour Party members is in this process. I managed to get the document from a member of the National Policy Forum and it is now on the Labour Party website. The document however does not say how Constituency Labour Parties, affiliated organisations or party members can contribute to the 19 working groups. You can put a sentence or two on the review website – my attempt to put in a three page submission on housing failed. I'm not sure whether this was due to its length, I was told the language in the submission was not appropriate – my mistake— it was headed ‘Fundamental principles for a progressive socialist housing policy'. I had the good fortune to bump into a consultant at a seminar who told me she had been seconded from her accountancy firm to assist Caroline Flint with the housing review – so off I sent my submission. Apparently the housing review has now recorded receipt of my paper – they have apparently not had many – so I don't know whether it has been discussed or even read by the experts on the working party, though I did eventually get a formal acknowledgement. The list of experts is to my knowledge not public, but I understand is made up of full time professionals with various housing bodies, not necessarily party members, with a couple of policy forum members, fortunately including my own CLP chair.

One of the reasons I rejoined the Labour Party after the election defeat, and started going to lots of Labour party meetings again, was because I felt an obligation to try to help develop a policy for the Party which was an improvement on what the last Labour government did and which was distinct from the Coalition government policies. I am not sure if being a Labour Party member, albeit one with some practical experience in a specific policy area, actually makes much difference. Perhaps I would have greater influence if I was a housing association chief executive or a professional consultant or lobbyist. The Refounding Labour initiative seems to be about opening up the party and policy making to the general public. It would be nice if it was opened up to its own members first!